Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: The After Life

Daniel Ehrenhaft

This book is a little surreal, a little dysfunctional, and a whole lot quirky. Less than 48 hours after Will Shepherd meets his half-siblings - Liz and Kyle - for the very first time, his estranged father is dead of a drug overdose. Soon, the 19 year old drunk is on his way to Florida for the "technically Jewish" funeral and an impromptu road trip, complete with the siblings he barely knows, back to New York to collect his inheritance. As the back cover of the book promises us, "what starts as tragic turns weird," and this is definitely true. The book is told in third-person but alternates viewpoints between Will, Liz, and Kyle.

This book is a mess, but I mean that in a good way. Will is a depressed 19 year old self-medicating with alcohol after the tragic death (or was it suicide?) of his uncle Pete after the 9/11 attacks. His half-siblings are confused and vulnerable (Liz) and business-savvy and seemingly unfeeling (Kyle) and together they make a strange family. Even stranger when it becomes apparent that Will has a crush on Liz. So yes, it's weird. The book is full of drug use and Will spends a good portion of the story completely drunk. None of the relationships here are what I'd call healthy, definitely not normal, and yet...

Yet there's a certain appeal in THE AFTER LIFE. Ehrenhaft's writing tends to have a certain quirky style, full of references to old rock bands and characters so sad, so messed up that you just have to feel for them. The setting here is incredibly done, from New York to Florida and everywhere in between. The plot is more than solid, the premise is amazing, and there are themes of family that sneak in every so often - especially with Kyle and Liz - with real heart. Though I didn't much like either Will or Liz, they were both very interesting and while reading I had a somewhat detached fondness for them. Kyle, on the other hand, brought an almost-realistic and completely-awesome side to what is an exceedingly weird book. Not only was he the only character that didn't seem to have a substance abuse problem, but he also brought an amount of level-headedness to an otherwise crazy trip. He's the brother that loves his sister even though he hates her, the dutiful son who makes the all the funeral arrangements because nobody else takes the initiative, and the control freak who keeps everything else in order. Quite unexpectedly, I loved him.

On the whole, this is a seriously weird book. On a personal note the drug use really bothered me but it might not bother other readers as much. The writing is great, the voice is incredibly and fantastically unique, and the story is worth it even if the ending seems a bit contrived.

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